A major theme throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament, is the rejection of partiality. For centuries, the Jewish community relished their status as the chosen people and created ethnic divides without understanding the purpose of Old Testament instruction. During Christ’s life and after His accession the topic was thrust again into the spotlight. But in light of the cross there was a different conclusion—a unanimous decree that there is no room for partiality in the Christian faith (Ephesians 2:15-18).
In the gospel of John we see one of the earliest examples of this in Christ's engagement with the woman at the well:
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) (John 4:7-9)
The lady was shocked that a Jewish man would speak to her. In this encounter, Jesus flies in the face of the cultural norms. This interaction exemplifies the context of the time and reveals how controversial the parable of the Good Samaritan would have been.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” In order to answer, He tells the now-familiar story about a man who fell among robbers and was stripped, beaten, and left half dead. A Jewish priest and a Levite walked by and crossed to the other side of the street and continued on their way. Finally, a Samaritan came by and helped the guy. Not only did he bandage the beaten Jew; but he took him to safety and paid for his lodging until he recovered. Ultimately, Jesus ends the parable by asking the questioner a pointed question:
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
This parable teaches that partiality based on race (i.e. “the chosen people”) is not okay. Jesus was speaking out against the most confirmed cultural norm. The parable of the Good Samaritan is like the ‘you are the father’ episode of the Maury Show in its level of shock value when viewed in its context.
Another detail revealed by Jesus’s conversation with the lady at the well is that the Samaritan’s believed in the one true God:
“Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” (John 4:12)
Identifying as part of Jacob’s lineage establishes that Samaritans knew about the One true God. And so we see how the teaching against partiality is important even within the body of Christ. There are many believers who do not have it all correct—they are still your brother or sister and should be viewed as full-fledged members in the body of Christ.
The book of James also comments forcefully on the topic of partiality. Unlike the partiality by race, James speaks out against partiality between social classes:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
This type of partiality is subtly done and typically not thought twice about. An example I recently heard concerns a denominational convention. Each church has to pay for its member to attend which can be costly. This creates a dynamic where only the "haves" can attend and influence the direction of the denomination. (By no means am I saying I have all the answers, but an issue is an issue.)
Another example is the cost of seminary. Are only kids from well-off families called to ministry? The steep cost is essentially an invitation only to the upper middle class to upper class—unless a guy is willing to mortgage his future. These examples do not mirror the examples that James explains, but it is similar. James makes it abundantly clear that preferences based upon money or status are sin and not acceptable in the church. In a capitalistic society, the quest to increase revenue masks the favoritism provided to the wealthy in contrast to other segments of society.
Another type of partiality discussed in Scripture is between the self-perceived pious and a known sinner:
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
This statement occurs as Jesus is eating at a Pharisee's house. A lady with a questionable track record approached Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) and washed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil and tears. This moment in the life of Jesus shows that the self-righteous and the one struggling are both loved by our Lord. The fact of the matter is that Jesus came for sinners:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Scripture does not argue that rejecting partiality makes obedience unimportant. Rather, from the most pious to the addict struggling, we all need Jesus and there is no partiality in that. To that point, much of the book of Acts is centered on reconciliation and the realization that Jesus is Christ for everyone.
Many people attempt to make the main theme of Acts be things like tongues, healing, or just a history tracing the early church—all of these are themes in the book of Acts—but the major consistent theme throughout the book is reconciliation and removing partiality in the body of Christ. An early example of this is Peter's revelation after God gave him a vision:
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
Peter’s eyes were opened by God to realize this beautiful truth that had been lost among the brethren—God is the God of all, not just the God of a certain people group. Later in the same chapter, Peter flushes out the premise even more:
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
To drill the point home, the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter the purpose of the sign of tongues (displayed three times in the book of Acts). The Apostle Peter does not conclude that the people who have spoken in tongues have a special anointing or that they are temporarily more filled with the Holy Spirit than another believer. No! The Apostle Peter concludes:
And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized. (Acts 10:45-48)
The statement “who can withhold baptism” establishes equality in the body of Christ. After this Peter proclaimed this truth at the first Church Council which affirmed partiality was not to be tolerated. Unlike many Protestant traditions that view baptism as a minor thing or symbol, the historic church viewed it as God literally washing sins away and God applying Christ’s finish works to the person. Therefore, this statement by Peter is no minor thing. It also makes the Apostle Peter being rebuked for partiality a huge thing.
In the book a Galatians, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Apostle Peter for showing partiality to the Jewish believers. One of the most interesting parts of this exchange between the two Apostles is that Paul established that this is a gospel issue:
To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (Gal 2:5)
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14)
As discussed earlier, there was no civility between Samaritans and Jewish people. This attitude was little different towards Gentiles for the most part. To break bread with a Gentile was not acceptable. You couldn't even step into their house. (Even our Lord and Savior referred to a Gentile as a Gentile dog (Matthew 15:25-28)—the people not of Hebrew lineage were viewed as inferior for the most part.)
The examples of partiality being addressed are numerous in the New Testament. Many Christians attempt to ignore the issues of partiality which impact modern society by placing their freedom in Christ against the biblical narrative to seek justice, care for the less fortunate, and fight for oppressed. Instead of just stating how unScriptural this is I’ll provide a Bible passage:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Jesus is the key to salvation, but that does not remove commands for believers. Having no concern for the poor, the helpless, the oppressed is a serious matter:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)
We may disagree on solutions, but partiality that leads to disdain or lack of empathy for our neighbor is not a Christian posture. We are called to love the rich, poor, and middle class. We are called to care about the widows and the orphans. We are called to relieve the oppressed. This is how we are to be salt and light to the world. Showing partiality based on prestige, social status, or ethnicity is not ok. In practice, a person will never be able to address, help, or even be aware of all societal ills in the world. But when one of the ills is at your door you should care. God has placed each of us in certain regions, certain communities, and we can make an impact there.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory…But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1, 9)
Love, Mercy, Peace,